In the Presence of Greatness
I am relatively new to Milwaukee and am always thrilled each time a friend or co-worker initiates me into a long-standing area tradition or introduces me to someone "you must know!" to be a legitimate Milwaukeean.
Yesterday, I was granted the phenomenal opportunity to meet Will Allen, founder and director of Growing Power on the north side of town. The only functioning farm in Milwaukee, Growing Power is to Urban Agriculture what Brett Farve was to the Packers.
Inspiring, inventive, ingenious and instrumental as a force of change not only for Milwaukee but also for the world, Growing Power and Mr. Allen have just been awarded one of 25 national grants. Named a fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (that tag line you hear on NPR all the time), Allen will receive a "genius grant" of $500,000, no strings attached, to continue to pursue the world changing, world sustaining work he does at Growing Power.
As if that's not enough, there is something to be said of the man himself. I was told just a few days ago when the news broke of the genius grant (the only one in the Milwaukee area...ever) and we were discussing Growing Power and Allen that "if you ever get a chance to shake that man's hand, you must. It will blow you away."
His history includes international basketball and an athlete's life, but also an understanding of farming, sustenance and hard work. But it's his presence and his present that make him important.
Allen explains his work, his farm and its enterprise in the simplest of terms. He is a stunning teacher. There is so much science behind the very simple innovations deployed at Growing Power that it would make even my former biology teachers' heads spin, yet he describes it all in such a way, anyone ignorant to science could become an Einstein in Allen's presence.
In fact, it's his rational, simple explanations that are what breaks up the hegemonic games we've become mired in. Thinking we "need" certain foods, certain habits, certain ways of doing things is what Allen's tale blows apart. Just listening to how simple change can be, how a little hard work and creative energy can shake up the largest of ideas becomes inspiring.
So much of the tour of Growing Power comes with phrases like "first in the country," "only ones trying this," "no one else but us has figured this out," "we're the model," and more. It inspires pride that this hands on, earth-bound innovation is right here in Milwaukee. Of course Allen won the genius grant, of course!
He's friendly, articulate and driven, but his style is comforting, rational and patient. He made a point to meet and know each person there with us, what our investment was there and how he could help. His vision for the farm is huge, but calculated. His group is the living, breathing example of the synergy of volunteerism, entrepreneurialism, funding, grants, profit and sense.
Allen is a character unlike any other. No one else could do the work he does. To witness up close what it's like to see a perfect fit, perfect harmony in work, place, character and spirit is really not that common. Many of us have jobs, we don't embody our work. We have things we are good at, but we weren't called to do them.
It was a truly amazing experience to share in Allen's tale of Growing Power and watch him in his element. Milwaukee should be proud that we are host to such an example of truly living a purposeful life and sharing that meaning with others.
Allen tells us all while we stand there hearing of yet another innovation in smart fertilizer, that soil has spiritual properties.
Digging your hands in the dirt is healing. I know many a gardener who would say they knew that all along. But as I watch each member of our tour stick their hands in a pot of revolutionary dirt and let it trickle over their fingers, waiting for some sign that it has healed them, calmed them, cured them... I see it. Allen, the soil, the project, the farm, even Milwaukee--we're all tethered by dirt and dirt is the way of the future.